We love watching for new trends, and one of the most interesting ideas to come out of 2022 was the concept of “quiet quitting.” Popularized by TikTok, it started as a reference to employees who do the bare minimum in a job either for better work-life balance and/or because they are frustrated with their employer. It is a sign of the times. Issues such as burnout and low engagement, which predated COVID but were accelerated by it, are now part of our collective discussions.
Quiet quitting can affect relationships beyond those of employees and employers. As we exited the acute phase of COVID in 2022, we started noticing a pattern in the social sector – have our board members quiet quit? There are many reasons that board members may have disengaged. Despite nonprofits’ best efforts, board members were impacted by the lack of connection that happened when so many had to rely on virtual meetings. Those who joined shortly before or during the pandemic missed training and team-building opportunities. Additionally, they may have chosen to put more emphasis on work-life balance and setting boundaries. Regardless of the reasons, though, the nonprofit sector needs strong and engaged boards, and collectively we (board members and staff) can start rebuilding these in 2023.
We want to share our time-tested techniques. The research is clear: organizations most successfully engage their boards by creating a culture of shared purpose, setting clear expectations, ensuring diversity of thought and enforcing their values. To do this, they use a few powerful tools, which we outline below. (We also include helpful checklists and templates that support board development.)
It is crucial for nonprofit boards to recruit members that come from various backgrounds and reflect the diversity of the community they represent. To evaluate the diversity of your board, consider conducting a board inventory (see template) before starting the recruitment process. It will help you pinpoint exactly who is needed. Once you have a solid idea of your ideal candidate’s experience and background, find the best fit by sharing a job description (see template) widely with board members, stakeholders and friends of the organization. Just like dating – your friends are the best sources of potential matches. The larger the pool of prospects, the more likely you will find the ideal candidate. The more specific you are (e.g., we need a mid-career doctor with a history of serving diverse patients), the more likely you are to get specific referrals.
During COVID, many boards reduced their recruitment efforts, so now is the perfect time as assess where you are and start the new year with goals for adding board members – based on your needs and upcoming strategies.
Training & Development
Setting a foundation from the start of a relationship with new board members is key. Many boards work with Executive Directors to adopt a board contract (see checklist) that outlines expectations of board members and the organization. We also encourage an onboarding process that includes learning about the organization through trainings, tours and a formal board orientation. Many nonprofits also have a board manual or online board portal (see checklist) to help board members understand the organization and find necessary paperwork all in one place.
Due to remote board meetings over the past two years, many board members did not get the best training and development. As a result, board members are less educated about the mission, which threatens their ability to be an ambassador for the cause. Consider hitting the restart button and adding newer board members to an in-person orientation this year or supplementing each board meeting with mini-trainings to reinforce efforts.
As we often quip during our board trainings, great board members are great, not because of what they do during board meetings, but by what they do between board meetings. This greatness can be spurred by meaningful board engagement opportunities. This not only includes productive board meetings, but also annual retreats to connect board members to one another and board experiences (see template) that bond board members to the mission. We also conclude every retreat with a one-year action plan that includes key agreements created in the meeting, so next steps are clear.
During COVID, board members were unable to truly bond as a collective group – which is a crucial part of the process. Board members join for the mission, but they stay because they enjoy the work. In 2023, consider conducting icebreakers, such as board bingo, to help your board members bond and recommit to one another.
The governance committee helps ensure that the board responsibly guides the organization by evaluating the board’s collective performance (see template) annually on areas like the degree to which members are prepared, informed and engaged. They also conduct an annual Executive Director evaluation. The assessment is a two-way street – the board also provides feedback on whether it has been appropriately informed by the Executive Director about its programs, finances and operations. Boards can also hold themselves accountable for productivity with a simple eight-question meeting evaluation (see template) to encourage positive behaviors. There is also a real benefit in conducting confidential exit interviews with exiting board members to get feedback on strengths as well as areas of future improvement.
If you have not done a board assessment recently, we highly recommend doing one at the start of 2023. Uncovering issues early will prevent departures or quiet quitting of board members.
Tackling Problems Early
We are only as strong as our weakest link. That’s why it’s vital for nonprofit leaders to keep a pulse on board members’ engagement and address issues as they arise. As we like to say, when board problems arise, average Executive Directors get frustrated and complain, but above-average EDs turn into detectives to undercover what is going on and try to find solutions.
If you sense a board member is quiet quitting, it is important to address it head-on. Left unchecked, quiet quitting can become a toxic culture for the group and lead to more quiet quitters in the future. So address your concern with that individual (without assumptions), hear them out and collectively decide how to constructively resolve the situation.
As we come back together after being disconnected, now is the time to “re-center” ourselves. We need to re-establish ground rules, hold effective in-person and remote meetings, and ensure that all board requirements and responsibilities are being fulfilled. By taking a few intentional steps, we can ensure that our boards are strong and productive.
As you make plans for your board in 2023, we hope you’ll use these tools and share how they and other strategies have been successful for your organization. If we can help you with these efforts, please do not hesitate to contact us with questions.